Perhaps Chris Marker’s masterpiece, Le train en marche has three distinct parts—an unwieldy structure for a half-hour film. The film opens and closes with a silent train in motion, but this Cocteauan sandwiching only underscores the film’s split quality. This “splitness,” however, serves Marker’s overarching theme.
The first part is the most identifiably Markerian, a tone poem haunted by hypnotic voiceover: “Soon after October [the 1917 Revolution] the trains begin to roll, and through the trains surges the blood of the Revolution. . . . Through the trains the voice of Lenin was heard across the Soviet Union as far as the republics of Asia, where young Communists were bringing literacy to women in shackles.”
Archival materials also dominate the second part, which refers to the 1930s. A different voice introduces Aleksandr Medvedkin’s CineTrain, by which “cinema was to become something created out of contact with the people.”
When the film flashes forward by forty years, Medvedkin speaks directly to us, recalling the CineTrain’s traveling film studio. The object was to “film our people, show these films to our people, and thereby help them construct a new world.” Faults at a steel works, for example, were shown so that workers themselves could devise a plan to correct these.
Medvedkin now is old. (Of the CineTrain’s 32-member crew, only eight are still alive in 1971.) Not a single shot from the films remains. The Soviet Union, tarnished by Stalinism at home, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the fifties and sixties, no longer encapsulates the world’s hope. Now, nothing does.
But, like the peasant in Medvedkin’s satirical Happiness (1934), one must persevere to come close to happiness. “The biggest mistake would be to believe,” Marker says, “that [the train of revolution, of history] had come to a halt.”
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